The Viola Commissioning Circle
Viola Commissioning Circle

Gerald Barry Viola Concerto

Commissioned by Britten Sinfonia and Raidió Teilifís Éireann

World premiere 18 May 2019 at Saffron Hall, with Britten Sinfonia conducted by Thomas Adès; London premiere on 21 May 2019 at the Barbican; Irish premiere 1 March 2020 at National Concert Hall, Dublin, with RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov as part of New Music Dublin Festival.

Yelp! Whoop! Bang! Holler! Gerald Barry’s Viola Concerto saunters through a slapstick landscape of stubbed toes, runaway trains and collapsing houses, with wobble sheet, cymbal and bass drum as exclamation points. Composed for Lawrence Power as part of Britten Sinfonia’s Beethoven and Barry cycle with Thomas Adès, it’s a grand musical joke in which the soloist doggedly practises technical exercises of fourths and octaves while chaos unfolds around him.

Think Buster Keaton. Think Stan Laurel. Long the butt of humour among orchestral musicians, the viola is denied its lyrical voice. “Wah-wah-wah,” laugh the trombones as our hero blinks, still sawing away at those intervals, up and down and round again. The big melody, when it finally arrives, is charming in its naive twists and turns and is whistled by the soloist as though strolling in spring sunshine. Can Tabea Zimmermann or Antoine Tamestit whistle? If not, this will be Power’s party piece in perpetuity.

This was not a top-down performance but a collaboration between Adès and the ensemble. The leader, Jacqueline Shave, channelled so much energy in her playing that it was hard to look away. The sound was big — sometimes too big from the brass — but sensual, intelligent and engaged. Grimy tuning from the double basses and curt timpani did not take away from the whole. The volatility and physicality of the Seventh, the Stone Guest-stare of its Allegretto, the Hungarian smack of its finale, the fizz of the Eighth and its gamey minuet, sounded new and brilliant, serious and playful.

Anna Picard, The Times

For Barry, every kind of musical material is grist to his creative mill, and as he pointed out in a brief note on the new work, he has never distinguished between the exercises all musicians play when they are learning their instruments and “regular music”. Exercises have given him “as much pleasure as Schubert”. In the concerto, almost all of the soloist’s material is exercise-like – repeated figures that run through the viola’s range with manic insistence, and are sometimes interrupted by rowdy volleys of brass and explosions of percussion, or taken up by one or more sections of the orchestra, always in rhythmic unison.
After just over 15 minutes of these exchanges, there is one final surprise: the soloist lights upon a fragile, wistful tune, which he first plays on his viola and then whistles quietly, as if to himself. Power may not be as superb a whistler as he is viola player, but it still adds an unexpectedly touching ending to this typically strange work.

Andrew Clements, The Guardian

I’m not necessarily sure I would want to hear Barry’s Viola Concerto on disc very often, but it is an extremely effective concert piece. Lawrence Power joined Adès as violist and also whistler, the piece requiring the violist to lower his bow and end the piece on a gentle, lilting whistle, perhaps Barry’s way of teasing those who expect a good concerto to end in a dynamic blaze. It’s a piece that can’t be described in any other way than as ‘fun’; one sits, grinning, as these rather serious exercises are undertaken by the violist with sudden contributions from the brass as disruptive as a drunk geriatric at Christmas dinner. There are some lovely moments though as the viola enters into dialogue with the orchestra, the entire viola section falling into rank after the soloist, as if learning from him. It’s one of those pieces where the apparent simplicity is a testament to the complexity of the composer’s writing. Here’s hoping that we’ll see it again in London.

Dominic Lower, Bachtrack

Commencing with a huge brass-led outburst, the viola then has a long, unaccompanied sequence, this orchestral attack and a similar viola chain occurs again and it is some time before the soloist is afforded any accompaniment. The viola’s repetitive if slightly changing rhythmic pattern is the basis of the work; the rhythm never relents and is so insistent that the ear accepts it as being melodic.

Various violent orchestral events emerge based on this rhythmic foundation and massive force from the lower brass is much favoured. The soloist is always allowed space and is never overwhelmed but the lyrical nature of the instrument is not featured. Lawrence Power used his instrument to complement the orchestra’s aggression often playing near the bridge and presenting a deliberately harsh sound yet this tone entirely matched the nature of the overall picture. Beauty is not featured in this Viola Concerto and there are no relaxing moments so how shall it be concluded? The composer explains that “the music ends with a melody. I was walking along the road the other day whistling it and suddenly a builder stood up from behind a wall and with a grin said, ‘Great tune’.” This episode is commemorated when woodwinds introduce the melody and finally the viola-player whistles it.

Antony Hodgson, Classical Source